Real Wax, Veritable Java Print, Guaranteed Dutch Java, Genuine Amsterdam, Vlisco True Original, Vlisco China, Vlisco Wax, African Printed Textiles, etc. These are some of the labels for modern wax print textiles (also known as batik) that are available in West African markets. But which one of the above is real, authentic or legal? And are the others then fake, inauthentic or illegal?
These are the questions posed by Professor Nina Sylvanus in her studies of wax print textiles in West Africa, and particularly Togo. And it is also in Togo that consumers are voicing a desire for the law to regulate the uncontrolled dumping of “fake” wax prints from China.
Many Africans would be surprised, maybe shocked, to learn that the fabric that they have always perceived to be truly African is not. Or is it? Who can claim intellectual property for this popular textile? To get to the bottom of this is not easy, and the story must be traced back centuries, across continents and shifting global politics.
Wax print is a process that traditionally uses a manual wax resistant dyeing technique. Melted wax is applied to cloth before being dipped in dye. The dye will not penetrate the areas that are covered with wax. Sometimes several colours are used, with a series of dyeing, drying and waxing steps. After the last dyeing, the fabric is hung up to dry. Then it is dipped in a solvent to remove the wax. A negative image of the printed pattern remains on the cloth.
The invention of the copper block revolutionised batik production. By using two deep engraved copper rollers, with the mirror image of the design, the two sides of the cotton fabric are printed with a pattern of melted wax. The fact that the cloth is printed on both sides enables the product to be worn on either side, which is an indication of a quality wax print. This intricate wax printing process results in the deep rich colours and the fine crinkle lines that give batik its unique character.
Although many trace the origin of wax prints to Indonesia and India, it is an ancient art form and already existed in Egypt in the 4th century BCE, where it was used to wrap mummies. In Asia, the technique was practiced in China, India and Japan since the 7th century. It is suggested that the fabrics were “reintroduced” into Africa by land across the trans-Saharan routes. In West Africa where fabrics already played an important role in their social life, local populations like the Yoruba in Nigeria, incorporated aspects of batik into their traditional textiles.
In Java, Indonesia, batik predates written records. It is not clear whether Indonesian batik is a native tradition or whether the technique might have been introduced during the 6th or 7th century from India or Sri Lanka. In the sixteenth century, the Dutch and the British trading companies established in West Java were presumably exposed to batik and soon started to sell wax prints (batiks) to West African markets that were enroute to Europe. In 1603, the first permanent Dutch trading post in Indonesia was established and for the next three hundred years, Java fell under the Dutch East Indies’ administration. Javanese batik was introduced to Holland and other parts of Europe, but was not popular with the Europeans.
After the mechanising of the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution (1760 onwards), the Dutch and the English blatantly copied the Javanese batik cloth (relabeled wax print) and industrialised the production techniques. These textiles were initially produced for the Dutch East Indies, but the local consumers were critical of the art and craftsmanship of the imported batik and it only found a market among the poor. However in Ghana and Togo, consumers embraced the slight imperfections that resulted from mechanical replication.
Earlier design used plants and animal motifs which had universal appeal. However, from the beginning of the 20th century design motifs were made more authentic by adding local patterns to cater to the tastes of their African customers. In the 1920s prints began to feature portraits of local community leaders and chiefs. After independence, 1950 onward, the portraits of African heads of states and prominent politicians were used as design motifs.
Early in the 20th century wealthy Togolese adopted the industrial copy (relabeled wax-print) and it became a status symbol. According to Professor Sylvanus, Togolese consumers distinguish between fabrics according to quality and origin. Togolese use the generic terms tschiganvo and tschivi. The former (tschiganvo) refers to superior and expensive wax printed cloth, also called grand pagne. By contrast, the term tschivi, refers to fabrics of inferior quality that is also considerably cheaper (petit pagne). The Dutch Vlisco cloth ranked highest, followed by English, Ivorian, Ghanaian and Nigerian wax-prints. Until the late 1990s, most Togolese women possessed a number of tschiganvo. In southern Togo, it has been a standard practice for a future husband to provide his bride with a selection of tschiganvo cloth – this is carefully evaluated by the bride’s family.
The Van Vlissingers that established today’s Vlisco brand, were early in the 1900s embroiled in a legal dispute over intellectual property (IP) rights. The Van Vlissingers bought the engraved rollers from a company in Haarlem and assumed that it would entitle them to design ownership. However they soon realised that the designs were still copied by a Manchester manufacturer. It was discovered that the Haarlem designs had during the early 1900s been registered in Britain. The Van Vlissingers could thus not claim exclusive property rights.
Dutch prints and Dutch brands have dominated the West African market since the end of the 19th century. The Dutch brand Vlisco is a symbol of class and on par with luxury brands like Rolex or Louis Vuitton.
Up until the 1960s, most wax prints sold in West Africa were being produced in Europe. Post-colonially, things changed. Currently, Ghana is home to several fine and high quality wax print manufacturers including Woodin, a subsidiary of Holland’s Vlisco and ATL which is a subsidiary of Manchester-based ABC textiles. Even though these textiles are now manufactured on the continent, the companies that manufacture them are for the most part not owned by Africans.
In the 1970s, Togo was known as the centre of commerce in West Africa. It was West Africa’s “petite Suisse” (little Switzerland), because of its apparent stability and prosperity. Professor Sylvanus suggests that this label of stability was false since political and economic governance was not really taken into consideration. With the Cold War as background, portraying this stability would encourage Western aid that would again prevent Russia from entering the country.
From the late 1950s Togolese women entrepreneurs known as “Nana Benz” ( “Nana” stands for mother or elder woman, “Benz” stands for Mercedes Benz, the German cars that they were the first to import), took control over the imported wax print market. They positioned Lomé, Togo’s capital, into a regional centre of textile distribution and dominated the trade in wax prints from Holland, Belgium, France and England, for the export markets in West Africa. Between 1976 and 1984, at least 40% of the commercial business in Togo which was in the informal sector, was in the hands of the Nana Benz. During the 1970s, the scope of this trade in textile was so important that it exceeded Togo’s phosphate industry, the country’s primary source of revenue.
The Nana Benz rose in wealth and power. Though uneducated, they travelled abroad on business, and commanded spontaneous salutes from the police at state functions. Even the government used to borrow their Mercedes Benzes for important state functions. They also played a leading role in national politics under the one-party rule of the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolaise (RPT). President Gnassingbe Eyadéma, appointed them to high offices in the women’s wing of the RPT. A leading Nana Benz, Madame A. Amedome, was appointed Minister of Social Welfare in 1977 even though she could not read or write.
In the late 1980s, after the Washington Consensus, international financial institutions changed their agenda from development economics to market reform. This was accompanied by an appeal for “democratisation”. In Togo the period between 1989 and 1993 was notable by violent agitation for a multi-party democracy. The controversial presidential election in 1993 was followed by a series of strikes and violent street protests. As Togo’s reputation of political and economic stability vanished, the European Union withdrew its support. This was followed by foreign investors and companies that also abandoned Togo.
These also signaled and end of a period of political and economic privileges for the Nana Benz. They lost their monopoly over the very profitable wax print market, partially because of the restructuring of their European suppliers and the devaluation of the Togolese currency, CFA Franc, by 50% that made this luxury item a commodity only affordable to the elite. But China also entered the market . . .
After the withdrawal of European aid the Togolese government used the Lomé free trade zone as a courting strategy for Chinese investments and development aid. While “official” customs regulations (amounting to 53%) were applied to European imports to fill the (empty) national treasury, a lax regulatory regime was used for Chinese imports. In opening the nation’s vast entrepôt (a port to which goods are brought for import and export) to Chinese products, the small West African nation became a major hub for mass-produced counterfeits of popular consumer goods, which included wax prints.
However before the arrival of China, Togolese traders have ventured to India, Hong Kong and then to China to find textile manufacturers to produce more affordable wax prints. These were labeled “Supersoso” and eventually also “Vlisco”, a clear “fake” of the Dutch brand. Thus, African traders had a role to play in introducing Chinese manufacturers into the African textile market.
Eyadéma died in 2005, and was succeeded by Faure Gnassingbé. Laissez-faire governance was accompanied by quasi-suspended economic regulations. This led to even more uncertainty. The state’s retreat from market regulation provided fortunes to some – especially the extended family clan. According to Professor Sylvanus, this can be illustrated, when in 2007 a “faction of the extended family firm”, after a huge publicity campaign launched a new fabric brand, Wax Nana Benz. They used the branding of the Nana Benz image as a symbol of the “stability” of an era when Togo was a prospering nation. Wax Nana Benz designs, identical copies of Dutch designs, were not subject to IP regulation as it was interpreted as national intellectual property. Wax Nana Benz did not hide that it was produced in China. Initially this product did well since Togolese bought into the quasi-authenticity, and it was cheaper and of a good quality. But soon the quality began to decline and the price increased. Consumers realised that Wax Nana Benz was nothing but a copy of a copy, produced in the same factory by the same Chinese suppliers that were flooding the market with cheap copies, just under a different label.
With Dutch wax prints being increasingly reproduced in China, wax prints carrying the “Made in Holland” tag are at the high end of the market, with Chinese productions occupying the opposite end. As the quality of Chinese wax print copies are improving consumers are increasingly unable to distinguish between all the different types and qualities of fabrics. In joining Western fears over China’s aggressive economic policy, Togolese citizens want the regulation of the textile industry and demand state intervention. Togo not only nominally acknowledges international IP law (via its WTO membership), is a member of the Cameroon-based African Intellectual Property Organisation, but also has a national IP legislation. The state, however, is reluctant to intervene and appear to deliberately remain ambiguous as presidential delegations make repeated trips to Beijing actively courting Chinese development aid.
Indian batiks were brought “back” to West Africa by land. After colonisation the Dutch brought Indonesian batik to Africa and later copied it for production by their factories in Holland. They integrated the wax prints by incorporating African designs and claimed the “Dutch wax print” to be “authentically African” even though it was produced and designed in Europe, presumably by Europeans with little or no African input in terms of designs and motifs at the production stages. The Dutch wax print industry flourished under the protection of Western powers. This monopoly was brought to an end by the shifting of global politics. The withdrawal of the EU in Togo left the door open for China who enthusiastically stepped in and copied the Dutch wax prints that were already a copy of . . .
Should the Togolese government claim wax prints to be African/Togolese IP due to its “Africanness” and protect it against the “fakeness” of the Chinese products?
Nina Sylvanus: Fakes: crisis in conceptions of value.
Nina Sylvanus: “Chinese Devils”? Perceptions of the Chinese in Lomé’s Central Market.